Added 21 February 2010
Wednesday/Thursday, 18-19 March 2009, Grand Gulch, Utah
Wednesday: Pre-trip - I made the mistake of going in to work on Wednesday, the day my friend Mindy and I planned on heading up to meet my friend Steve in Utah for this backpacking trip. I should have done what Mindy did and just take the whole day off instead of just a half day. It would have made my day much less hectic, and likely would have prevented a big blunder. I knew it was going to be a busy morning at work when a co-worker popped into my office requesting my presence at a meeting with FEMA. It was a distraction from what I wanted to get done, but I knew I needed to attend. As a result of the meeting, I was scrambling to get out the door in time to make it to my doctor’s appointment at 1:30, and I left the office without having eaten lunch.
I didn’t leave the Doctor's office until almost 3:30, then I went to meet up with a guy who was potentially interested in buying some rear differentials I was selling. To make a long story short, he couldn't make up his mind about which one to buy, and eventually ended up buying both of them.
Everything from the doctor’s appointment to selling the differentials took longer than expected, so I was running late when I picked Mindy up so that we could start heading north. I had to sheepishly admit that I wasn’t quite packed up and ready to go, and when I got home I was scrambling to get everything organized so we could start the long drive to Utah. I was running around and throwing stuff in bags, with the intent of actually packing my backpack once in Utah, while waiting for Steve Thursday morning. We didn’t leave my house until around 5:15, more than an hour later than I’d hoped. The drive was pretty uneventful until somewhere between Phoenix and Flagstaff, when I made a disturbing realization: in my hurry to get out the door, I forgot my hiking boots. All I had were a pair of Crocs and a pair of sandals. I figured I could tough it out with the sandals, but it would likely be a very unpleasant experience. By the time I expected to get to Flagstaff, there wouldn’t be any sporting goods stores open, so my options would be Wal-Mart or Target.
I didn’t think either one would have anything decent for backpacking in, but figured I’d stop and see. If I found something worth spending money on, I would, if not, I’d go with the sandals. As I drove into town, I saw a Kohl’s store that wasn’t there when I lived there, and made a detour there. I ended up buying a pair of Avia trail runners for a mere $30. They were low-tops, which wasn’t ideal, but they had nice stiff soles, which I knew would be important. They were a good buy, as I’m convinced now that doing this trip in sandals would have been unpleasant at best.
The shoe search seriously delayed our already delayed progress towards Grand Gulch, and as we crossed Dinetah, Mindy and I planned on stopping our drive just north of the reservation near Mexican Hat. At 1:30 a.m., I pulled off the highway towards Mexican Hat, found a wide pull-out from the dirt road, and parked. Mindy slept on the back seat of the car and I threw my sleeping bag out on the ground beside the car.
Thursday: start of the hike - The temperature got down below freezing, so I was pretty cold in my 30 degree rated bag. I had my 15 degree bag with me, but was too lazy to switch. That night convinced me to take my 15 degree bag on the backpacking trip. At around 6 a.m., just as the night started to lose its grip on the day, I decided I’d rather be cold and wandering around than cold and laying in my sleeping bag. With nothing but a fleece, since my heavy jacket was in the car and I didn’t want to wake Mindy up, I walked up the road to an overlook of the San Juan River.
We set out for Kane Gulch Ranger Station at around 7:30 and arrived at around 8:30 a.m. Steve arrived at 10:03 almost exactly when he said he would. When he arrived, we had to watch a 10 minute video about the canyon and the restrictions while in the canyon, then we talked with the ranger a bit about water availability and the vehicle break-ins that had recently occurred at the various trailheads. Since Steve’s Honda Element doesn’t have a trunk and it’s possible to see in it, we threw all of his stuff into the trunk of my Civic and left it at the ranger station (where no break-ins had occurred) and drove Steve's car to Bullet Canyon trailhead. I made signs to put in the windows informing any would be thieves that there was nothing in the car to steal, thus letting the thieves know that we knew they were operating and had taken care not to give them any loot.
We started hiking at around 11 a.m., and quickly started going down Bullet Canyon. It wasn’t long before I spotted a neat stone structure on the rim above us. I made a mental note to try to find it when we finished the hike and went back to pick Steve’s car up, if we had time (and energy) to do so. All three of us were hiking slowly, for no particular reason I suppose. We just felt like cruising. It felt right to stroll. Time wasn’t so important. We did quickly realize, however, that if we continued at the pace we were setting, we would have to revise our itinerary.
The wash started out as a sandy bottomed channel, but before long the wash hit bedrock and we had to climb down through a sandstone chute. At the bottom of the chute was a sheet of ice and snow that we had to tread carefully on.
By late afternoon we reached Perfect Kiva, a restored cliff dwelling and kiva. At Perfect Kiva we found many grinding stones, bits of pottery, structures, and of course, the kiva itself, with a ladder to descend down into it.
We then continued down the canyon to Jailhouse Rain. Just as we got within sight of the ruin, we met Michael, a solo hiker who helped point us to a good camp site. Jailhouse Ruin turned out to be one of my favorite sites on the trip. It has three large, bold, white pictographs above the upper, seemingly defensive level, one of which appears to be a face with large round eyes. It has no other discernible facial features, and I found it to be particularly captivating. Michael was up exploring the area as well, and being a little ahead of us, as he was heading down and we were going up, he told us about some petroglyphs around the corner of the cliff.
We climbed up to the petroglyphs and I was taking photos of them when I looked to my right and saw nothing but Steve’s legs as they snaked around the corner of a high ledge. He had found a way to belly crawl through a small hole between the low overhanging cliff and a piece of ancient wall. What he found was a way to access the upper level of Jailhouse Ruin. I quickly bagged my camera and started crawling after him. Rounding the corner, the shelf widened, then narrowed significantly. My first thought upon seeing Steve worming across a shelf no wider than his body was, “He’s nuts!” As I moved forward to follow him, my second thought was, “He’s REALLY NUTS!!!” The narrow shelf had a shoulder of rock that sloped down at about 45 degrees for a few feet, then it was a vertical 40+ foot drop. I decided I was too chicken to try it, so I just took pictures of Steve and made him take pictures of what was on the other side for me.
Below is a video of Steve crawling back across the ledge. Warning, it's 9.4 megabytes in size.
While Steve and I were doing this, Mindy was exploring the rest of the area, and when we emerged from the ledge hole, she took us to a narrow slot she found that was formed by a fissure in the cliff face. We all wiggled our way through the slot until we came to a window almost directly above the petroglyphs. After exiting the slot, we continued up the next canyon a ways, then descended to the canyon bottom and returned to camp. We found a decent pool of water at Jailhouse Spring and topped our water supplies off. I got to test my new MSR AutoFlow gravity water filter for the first time, and I was pretty impressed. Clean water without any pumping whatsoever! Just fill a bag, hang it or hold it up, and clean water flows out! Sweet!
Campfires are not allowed in the canyon, so after dinner, we stood around in the dark talking for a little while. It was still very early when Mindy decided to go to bed, followed shortly by Steve. With no one to talk to, I decided to get in my sleeping bag and read or write for a while. However, my headlamp attracted many very large bugs, and more than a few spiders, so I just decided to go to bed. Unfortunately, the bugs didn’t seem to take the hint and they kept landing on my face. When one nearly landed in my mouth, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep out in the open so I put up my tent. Since it’s all mesh without the fly, it was like sleeping outside, but with an effective bug screen.